Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Am I Really Making A Difference?

     The other day I was talking to a colleague of mine and the following question came up: 'Does what we do really make a difference within our students?' This question, while it was supposed to be part of a short conversation, quickly turned into a meaningful discussion that has got me thinking about what I do in the classroom and the true, long lasting effect I have on my students (if any).

     The department member that I was engaged in a conversation with has a very similar teaching style to my own, one of which I believe is gaining popularity in the math education world - a style of inquiry-based, student-centered education. We both pose challenging problems to our students and use them to investigate new topics; keeping the students engaged with the material by giving them tasks that are just out of their reach, keeping them thirsty, and illustrating the connections that exist within mathematics. We've both had great success with this style, and its apparent by the students' comments and interest that traditionally has not been seen in past math classrooms. Throughout my department, I am trying to push this style and encourage my fellow colleagues to step out of their comfort zone and give their students some freedom and control of the classroom. The times that I have heard of them trying this, they have reported success, but I'll be honest, as the department facilitator I'm not entirely sure as to how much this is happening in our classes. Is it occurring on a regular basis? Are the majority of my department members doing this? Do most students see standard, old fashioned lecture-style lessons straight from a textbook throughout the majority of the high school careers? I have my thoughts, but nothing based on fact. This 'unknowingness' tells me that I need to get into other classrooms more. I need to observe what's happening in my department so that if our students aren't achieving what they should, I can locate any possible issues. With these thoughts running through my head, and with the conversation I had yesterday, I've been wondering if my students really are different at the end of a semester with me, and if they are, does that change last or get reset?
     In talking with my students over the years, they have mentioned that they enjoy my class and my teaching style because they see the connections and are forced to work to their potential; they learn to problem solve instead of regurgitate and they become critical thinkers instead of machines (well, most of them). I can see this develop in them throughout the semester. As far as concrete, data driven evidence, I'm not sure I have any, but I can witness the growth. My fear is that when they move from my geometry class to algebra 2, do they become the student they used to be, or do they continue to approach math in a new way? If their new teacher does not challenge them, do they lose that ability to think for themselves? And if so, can they bounce back if they get a teacher that can push them, or do they need to be 'retrained' (I don't really like that word for this context, but can't think of anything better)?
     Ultimately this conversation led to us being fearful that our students go back to their old habits and what we've done with them is almost a waste. I hate to sound so negative, because I certainly do not think that what I do with my students is a waste, but if there are no long term benefits then I don't know how else to think about it. Throughout the semester I try to build my students up to a point where they are not afraid to attempt any problem and they can be proud of the work they complete, even if its wrong. If they move on to a class where all of the information is given to them directly and all they need to do to be successful is follow an example in a textbook, then they are not being challenged and they realize that their work is not valued. They may not have to try really hard throughout the entire semester and could still get an A. And worse, if they then move to a class that challenges them again, then they are back to their old routine. This, of course, is what I'm worried about and I'm still trying to figure out if this happens or not.
     As the department facilitator, I know that it is my job to get all of my department on board with challenging all students and getting them all engaged in the material, for all courses. With new teachers, I think this is easier to do than with older, more experienced ones. Especially today, the trend seems to be for teachers to be introduced to this "new" student-centered style. However, teachers that have been around for a while, as we know, are more likely to stick to their old habits and come up with many excuses/reasons to not change. I'm speaking in generalities at this point. My department members have seemed to be open to new styles and tools that can be used to effectively teach their curricula, but there may be some that just aren't sure how to do it. If there are teachers that focus on what is only in a textbook and need everything almost scripted to teach, how can that be changed?
     I believe that in my department we need to be more consistent in how we teach. Obviously we all have our own individual styles for delivering information - I don't want to completely change everyone. However, getting back to my original question, I do want our courses to all have a certain level of rigor so that students feel challenged and interested in every course they take and they don't have to worry about what teacher they have next year. Maybe this is too idealistic, but it is a goal of mine. I don't want students to have to beg for one teacher because they are easy or because they are tough, or cross their fingers that its not so-and-so because of stories they've heard from their friends. I want consistency in the quality of education that will be provided to all of our math students. As a teacher, I don't want to be torn between filling in knowledge gaps for half of my students because they had one person and continuing at a certain pace because the other half had someone else.
     As I write this, I realize that I've gone down a bunch of different roads that I didn't expect all because I want to know if I change my students in the way they problem solve for the better. It boils down to this: I want the comfort of knowing that what I do is making a difference or the frustration knowing that I need to change to make that happen. Right now I'm somewhere in the middle. I'm not exactly sure how to get an accurate answer to this question, which is quite disheartening. Ideally, I could have the same group of students two years in a row and see if what I've done has stuck with them. But even that wouldn't tell me if my strategies continue when they leave my room.
     Of course, there is always the possibility that my students are just telling me what I want to hear, and they really do not like how I teach at all. Crap, that's a whole different set of issues...

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